Manchester United’s night at Old Trafford might have been different on Tuesday had Marcus Rashford scored his early goal. Rashford raced through by himself and, from an angle just off-centre, lifted his finish over the Young Boys goalkeeper but also over the bar. It was a pivotal moment, but it wasn’t a glaring miss; a nice idea and a good attempt, just a touch overhit.
But there was Jose Mourinho on the sidelines, shaking his head and wearing his scowl of disapproval. It was an overreaction and, clearly, a made for television moment. Mourinho has always reacted with bizarre indignation when asked why Rashford hasn’t been given a sustained opportunity at centre-forward and, you suspect, he rather enjoyed seeing the player fluff his lines in front of the world.
What a strange situation that is. We’re used to managers inviting players to prove them wrong, either by tweaking their sensitivities in public or leaving them out, but rarely does a head-coach seem to revel in such a petty, faux-validation when it comes at the expense of the collective good.
Gary Lineker verbalised this well on BT Sport last night.
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) November 27, 2018
Condensing the Mourinho situation down to a single moment is clearly ludicrous, but it did neatly surmise all the current problems – and, actually, made it easier than ever to draw a straight line between United’s stodgy, inhibited performances and their head-coach’s self-serving behaviour.
Two days ago, Luke Shaw spoke of “needing thick skin” to play for the Portuguese. He’s right, of course, and he should know. But why must it be this way? What is Mourinho actually achieving with this open hostility towards his own squad – logically, what is the effect of all this acrimony likely to be? Within reason, a relaxed, appreciated player is generally a good one and yet, week to week, he seems to do whatever he can to create as much discomfort as possible.
Yes yes, he’s always fostered creative tension and, as he is so quick to remind everyone, it has served him well in the past. The trouble, though, is that that past continues to disappear in the rear view mirror and relates to a different era of the sport.
In this instance – and as Lineker alludes to in the video above – what is Marcus Rashford’s reaction likely to be? What positive response is he supposed to draw from seeing his manager respond like that – clowning for the cameras like a posturing child. Maybe Mourinho is so terribly smart that his purposes elude us and that, actually, he’s playing a game so complex that it evades everybody else’s comprehension.
Perhaps, but in the real world, Manchester United lie seventh in the Premier League, are closer to Watford and Bournemouth than they are to Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool, and there are people who couldn’t be paid to watch them. There’s nothing particularly smart about any of that and, instead, it perpetuates the suspicion that the bigger picture is secondary in Mourinho’s eyes and what really matters, irrespective of the cost it comes at, is that he’s seen to be right about all the things which don’t actually matter.